Military veterans adjust to campus life

By Acton Gorton

Tom Amenta, freshman in LAS, learned he was accepted to the University during his combat tour of Afghanistan in 2004 and spent the rest of his deployment searching for a place to live and registering for classes.

Amenta’s time back in the United States was spent readjusting to normal life and preparing for college – eating a primo steak dinner, drinking some good wine, and puffing the best cigar the restaurant had to offer. Within a few weeks, he was discharged from the U.S. Army and sitting in class.

“Congratulations! You are now assigned to the University of Illinois,” joked Amenta as he pretended to read a notice for switching duty stations in the military.

Amenta is one of roughly 700 military veterans on campus, according to the University’s Veterans Affairs (VA) financial aid office, and one of approximately 210,000 military veterans attending four-year universities, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The average veteran on campus enters military service immediately after high school. Often, veterans find that any high school friends have already graduated by the time they enter the University.

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The University does not have a program in place to help veterans transition from military life to college life. The University’s Counseling Center can help veterans that might have had some traumatic experiences while on duty. Beth Jannusch at the University’s Counseling Center said the staff is prepared to handle personal and psychological issues for all students, including veterans.

One of the first people that veterans will meet when they come to the University is Dave Sayers, junior in LAS and a VA representative working at the financial aid office. The VA office has been the traditional hub for veterans to meet each other and resolve problems.

Sayers said the hardest part of the transition to college life was not the homework or the class load, but the adjustment to younger classmates who complained and took things for granted. He said it just took a while for him to get used to their perspective.

“I didn’t know a single person at all,” Sayers said. He said he met people in class, but it was easier for him to socialize with other veterans.

Tim Adkisson, sophomore in engineering, established the Illini Military Club with some friends to help veterans where the University can’t. The mission of the registered student organization is to provide a venue for discussion and socialization among veterans.

“We’d love to be affiliated with the University as a point of contact for veterans … but we aren’t bona fide yet,” Adkisson said.

Terry Timmons, freshman in business and a member of the club, used to be a crew chief on a Black Hawk helicopter in the Army. Now he sits in class with students several years younger.

“Coming to college, you have to do everything on your own,” Timmons said.

One of the more difficult problems Timmons believes veterans face is learning how to live on a constricted budget. He briefly described a friend who tried to maintain the same standard of living he was used to in the military. His friend got so far in debt that he was forced to re-enlist to pay off his bills.

“Coming back, being older, supposedly wiser, you feel like you don’t fit in,” Timmons said. “I dress younger, buy younger clothes. You do it because you want to be liked.”

Amenta said there are similarities between his time in the Army and students’ first year in college – it’s everyone’s first time being away from home. However, he recognizes he has gained more leadership experience than most other students.

“I’m in charge of nine guys. I leave. And all of a sudden I’m supposed to be a peer,” Amenta said.

Amenta said he is now encountering a variety of opinions around campus that he hadn’t faced before. But, he is making an effort to adjust.

“I’m in a fraternity now,” Amenta said. “I joined that because I need to learn how to interact with people who aren’t exactly like me.”

One of Amenta’s friends, Tyler Morris, sophomore in education, is a veteran who was in combat in Afghanistan while assigned to the Army Rangers. He said he isn’t having any problems adjusting to college life.

“It’s part of the training I guess … to be thick-skinned and not let it bother you,” Morris joked. “The worst thing around here is I gotta watch my mouth … I can’t dip in class.”

For him, adjusting to life outside a combat zone was harder.

“I just wasn’t used to being able to walk on the ground,” said Morris referring to the dangerous mountainous terrain littered with landmines in Afghanistan. “I was so used to skipping from rock to rock.”

Morris said between his combat experience and college life, he didn’t have any problems looking out for himself.

“Most of the college kids aren’t mass murderers and nothing to really worry about,” said Morris.

Using his experiences to reflect on the past and prepare for the future, Morris has decided to major in elementary education.

He said he enjoys functioning as a leader and teaching others. But Morris realizes it is not glorious pay and talked about possibly contracting as a bodyguard in Iraq.

He has not ruled out going back in the military.

With a college degree, Morris would be eligible to become an officer in the Army, but he would have to give up the enjoyment he had as an enlisted soldier – therefore, Morris would only join again if he could be a sergeant, a noncommissioned officer.

Looking ahead, Amenta said he is majoring in international studies because he wants a job at the State Department. He said he misses the military. It helped give him perspective of what he wants to do for the rest of his life.

“(The) military shaped how I look at (my) major, but not how I chose my major,” said Sayers, who is studying political science.

Sayers is undecided about what he wants to do with the rest of his life, but like Morris, if he decides to go back into the military, he wants to stay enlisted.

Timmons said he would back into the military if something else tragic happens.

“If your country needs you, you need to be there for your country,” Timmons said.